I recently had a wonderful chat with corporate anthropologist, Andi Simon. She is the founder of Simon Associates Management Consultants and author of new book, Rethink: Smashing the Myths of Women in Business. It was deep, enlightening and truly inspirational. We discussed how women can seize opportunity from crisis and what some of the current challenges are in leadership.
EMS: Welcome Andi – thanks for joining me from the US. I am fascinated with how women are holding their space in the current times and are really excelling in leadership – what are you noticing?
AS: As a corporate anthropologist, I work with a number of organisations that need or want to change. I used to tell them if you want change, have a crisis or create one and then COVID came along!
I’ve spoken to a lot of women about their achievements, how they are seen and what they have achieved for my recent book. What I noticed was a reoccurring theme about women who led and lead differently. Women told me stories about how they could mobilise others by better engaging with them and understanding their stories. Storytelling is so important when leading.
Great leadership is about listening
A great example is one of the women who was running a huge business put all her efforts into listening and spent time in all her business departments, hearing their stories, their experiences, their discomforts and then did the exact same with their clients. So rather than being a knowing or controlling leader, they were very much a listener.
From taking the time to really hear her staff and clients, it was clear to her how to align them and ensure their business strategy going forwards was clear. She asked her teams to focus on three things that will move the business forward and focus only on these three things and their metrics.
Telling stories inside the organisation were reflected in how they did things together or not. She realised quickly they were misaligned with each other and the outsiders. So after putting her strategy in place, within a year she had turned around the company from losing money to making money. There are always times in business where women can seize opportunity from crisis and it doesn’t have to be as harsh as a pandemic. Great leadership isn’t about the leader, it’s about listening. Occurring astuteness is an important skill – you have to listen to them rather than them listening to you.
EMS: What are the biggest differences you have seen with male leaders?
AS: When I work with men, there is a tendency to have a command/control autocratic, hierarchical organisation.
An example of this is a man who sold a very successful financial firm and took the cash he made and bought five companies that were all originally family firms. The people that were left working in these firms did not take to him and his leadership style at all. They were used to having teams with a caring culture and not a process driven, results and competitive focus. It was so evident that it’s about how you treat people than being a good leader.
We also have to mention the outstanding leadership from women we have seen on display when dealing with the COVID pandemic. There is so much to learn about how women approached things and managed through crisis. These women collaborated, they saw the crisis as something that they will work with their communities to tackle together and worked with them to address and understand it. They were decisive, had authority but weren’t controlling or hierarchical. They engaged people to believe that together they could overcome it. I think good women who understood how their communities worked had the right kind of communication to engage them.
EMS: In the UK, we are witnessing such a different approach from our leaders. For women working in male-dominated sectors, it can often be tricky finding support from other women.
AS: I’ve worked with female lawyers, for example, that are ingrained in a male environment, and they often struggle to work with other women. It can be a difficult issue with expectation management. How do they talk to each other and how do they support each other while remaining in control and earning respect? It’s a difficult one but good leaders show humility and kindness. A good leader employs people that they want to see be more successful than them. Then they champion their teams and act as a visionary to empower and enable them to succeed. The way good leaders talk makes you want to follow them.
EMS: Most people are working remotely at present – how are finding leadership is showing up online?
AS: I suppose you have to ask: how do you see leadership anyway? We’re all looking at a flat screen and performing like on stage at the moment. From my experiences, I am seeing women are speaking without getting spoken over and they are permitted to speak full sentences. Guys are respectful of their time to talk. Online as someone who facilitates a lot of sessions, it is easier to control room dynamics – you can mute! As someone managing that stage, I can enable women to have time.
EMS: The past few months have seen an accelerated digital transformation for everyone – is everyone on board?
AS: It’s fantastic but there are some that just aren’t willing to go with it which is a shame. Cultural conflict of generations is fascinating to me – you can fight the new digital era, but everyone is using it. You can’t avoid it, so you best get on board with it.
EMS: Do you think people are missing the side conversations, the casual office chats?
AS: In all honestly, breakout rooms I don’t find value in – people aren’t quite sure what to do in them. They often sit there but don’t talk if there’s no structure. We’re all learning new skills and the brain hates to change; it’s easier to resist than try it.
It’s an interesting time across the globe – women in leadership are on the brink. In the US – over 65% accountants are women, 45% of lawyers are women, half of doctors and dentists are women. If we can have 25% of C-suites as women and then 25% to be women of colour, then can we change the dynamics.
EMS: What do you think is the biggest opportunity for women in the next 6/12 months and how can women seize opportunity from the recent crisis?
AS: The women I am watching and working with are changing the conversation a little bit. They are ploughing ahead and making stuff happen in ways that are exciting. Personally I’ve had to change my story a number of times with my new career paths or business ventures. I think women are changing their stories again and we are celebrating successes and women in ways we haven’t done in the past. It’s no longer enough to get ahead on our own without looking at who we can develop, mentor and take with us. This is definitely a great time for women to seize opportunity from crisis.
The power of having a good mentor
Everyone is paying attention to the women around them. There are still issues finding good mentors, but the hope is that women will advocate for women. Women will create training grounds for women and women will not only build a social network but a political and powerful one too. I’m watching the dots without seeing the pattern as yet, but I’m a dot collector. There’s something coming that I think it will be a multiplier.
One woman helps another, then helps another – it’s not easy as guys don’t let go easily but we all have to support each other. I hope women stay in the corporate system – so many go up the corporate ladder and leave it. They run out of patience so go off and start their own business or something that works better for them.
EMS: The pace of change has been rapid over 6 months. How are the women you are working with coping?
AS: I have been speaking to so many women who have reached a point where they are successful, but not happy. They have got to change but they don’t know how. How do you rethink where you are going next? Each woman has a roadblock. Women are stressed, their work/life balance isn’t good, and their issue is – who am I? Where am I going? There is a real need out there. There’s a lot more to being a woman than having a title and a salary.